Bangkok is a feast for the senses. It is a cacophony of noises, smells, sounds, and tastes. And it is unrelenting.
For me, the smells stand out the most. Just walking down the street you experience such a variety of smells, some bad but many of them very good. There are food carts on every corner, selling everything you can imagine. I don’t know what most of it is, so I do have to use my imagination. Much of it looks to be various kinds of curry, or at least some form of sauces that go over rice and noodles. There is roasted meat, roasted fish, ramen-type bowls, and of course the closer you go to the tourist areas the more Pad Thai stands you see. A plate of Pad Thai will run you somewhere between $1.50 and $3, but we have seen it as cheap as $1. Interestingly, the Pad Thai is not spicy. When you ask them to make it spicy, all they offer you is some chili flakes to go on top. Apparently the food in Central Thailand is mostly non-spicy. Oh and while on the topic of food carts, there are also vendors selling scorpions on a stick. I assume its fried, but I’m not sure. Its literally a full scorpion on a stick. We were sitting in a bar last night and the scorpion vendor came by and, after some encouragement from Emily and I, sold a small scorpion to an English tourist at the seat beside us. He ate it in one bite, and afterwords when asked how it was replied that it “definitely had a taste to it”. I don’t think that was meant in a good way.
Emily comments a lot on the traffic. There is a real smell of car exhaust, diesel fuel, and of course the smell of 2-stroke engines found in the scooters and tuk tuks. I wonder if the endless traffic is one of the reasons why we haven’t seen blue sky in this city. The traffic never ends, and there is smog to go with that. It also brings noise, though not as much honking as we expected. Not like Cairo, where a van will be driving down a completely empty street just laying on the horn. The cab drives and tuk tuk drivers don’t leave tourists alone. They will pull up beside you on the street, roll down their window, and ask if you want a ride. Then they don’t believe you when you say no. We are on a tight budget, so we will continue to walk everywhere. Besides, you tend to seem more interesting things while walking.
Despite all the chaos, Bangkok manages to be accessible. People from all over the world are here to experience what the city has to offer. There are of course the hoards of backpackers, who obviously chose this as a major stop on their journeys. But it is not just for seasoned travelers. There are people of all ages, even families with young children. There are thousands of Chinese tourists, mostly in tour groups following their leaders who storm through the crowds, holding a little flag up for identification. We haven’t seen many Canadians – just one pair of girls who we noticed had backpacks from MEC.
I’ve titled this blog “City of Temples” not because its the City’s official slogan, but because it seems the majority of tourist sites seem to be temples. The Thai temples are gorgeous, featuring ornate decorations with mosaics of gold and jewels. The pagodas at the temples are tall and thin, and tend to be covered with small golden tiles. The temples we have visited are all active Buddhist sites, so there is an interesting mix of Thai locals praying and tourists snapping pictures. Some tourists seem to treat the praying Thai as part of the experience, taking pictures and videos of them. It is very distasteful, and I hope we have managed to be respectful with our visits and photos. We both remarked yesterday after visiting the Golden Mount, which is a temple high on a hill in the middle of the city, that the temples and various Buddhist practices are quite beautiful in their own way. There is the smell of incense throughout, There is the dinging of bells as Buddhists walk by them, striking them. There are gongs as well. Some of the temples have melodic chanting, either over speakers or from the Thai people themselves. Another common feature are small metal bowls, located together in a row. Buddhists will walk down them, dropping coins in each one. This makes a continuous, gentle “clinking” sounds that is almost like a type of wind chime. All these noises are strangely relaxing, as you soon grow accustomed to them and they fade into the background.
Now is a particularly interesting time to visit Thailand, as the country is still officially mourning for the recent King who passed in late 2016. Many of the locals, and all public servants, are entirely clothed in black. There are memorials with the King’s image all over the city, and many buildings are adorned with black drapery in mourning. We are told the King was well loved by the people, and he ruled for a very long time. When we were visiting the Grand Palace, we had to make way for hundreds of Thai mourners who walked through the Palace grounds in their black clothing. Palace guards would move the tourists out of the way so the Thai people could go through, towards the Palace building. I’m not sure if the King’s body is inside or of it is just set up as a mourning site. Either way, access to the Palace itself was restricted as a result. When we were leaving the Palace grounds, the guards once more ushered everyone out of the way, to the side of the road. We were told the Queen was visiting the Palace. After a few moments, a motorcade of Mercedes cars and SUVs drove by, and all the guards turned and saluted. The vehicle windows were tinted solid black, or close to it, so we couldn’t see the Queen herself. It was a very interesting experience. Coming here, I knew Thailand was a monarchy but I guess I didn’t give it much thought. After all, Canada too has a monarchy but the Queen doesn’t really affect our daily lives or even elicit much of an emotion from people. Here it is quite the opposite. The monarchy is a big part of the people’s lives.
Our hostel, Green House Hostel, is on Ramburti Street in the old part of the City near the river. We picked it for a few reasons: 1) We have a double bed, private room with private bath for $25 per night; 2) It has a bar downstairs; 3) It is near to the Khao San Road, which is a famous (or infamous) tourist area. The bed is a far cry from our Tempurpedic at home, but at least the room is clean.
Ramburtri Street itself has been a surprise. We thought it would be close enough to Khao San that we could walk there easily, but far enough to be away from the chaos. It turns out that isn’t exactly the case. Its very similar to Khao San, though maybe slightly less intense.
I’ve mentioned Khao San a number of times now, so I should try to explain it – though I’m honestly not sure I can do it justice. During the day it looks like many other streets in the City, albeit with more signs saying “Bar” or “Guest House”. It has western ammenities, like a McDonalds, a Starbucks, and a Burger King. But the heart of Khao San is nocturnal, and at night it seems that every single tourist in Bangkok flocks to the street. I suppose it must be what the Vegas Strip is like, though I can’t imagine that Vegas has the raw energy that Khao San has. When I say every tourist, I mean exactly that. Old, young (babies), hippies, backpackers, people in suits, people with barely any clothes on – you name it, they are at Khao San at night. Many find a seat at one of the road side bars and drink cheap beers and eat street food. Many more seem to just walk the street, taking in the sights. Every single bar seems to have live music – often a local with an acoustic guitar, murdering classic songs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But we have found some great music too. In among the mass of people there are street vendors selling the most random things – bracelets, hats, wooden frogs, laser pointers, to name a few. They will walk through the restaurants and stop at each table, trying to get you to buy things. You have to ignore them, because if you show any interest at all they will simply not leave you alone. There are also scooters, motorbikes, cars, and vans forcing their way through the crowds. The road is completely full of people, and a van will just be driving through, honking. Its absurd, really. And it is certainly not for the feint of heart. But it has a charm to it, because I don’t think there are many places in the world where a street like this could exist. Its best just to try and absorb it all.
We have had the most fun on our own street, Rambutri. It is basically the same as Khao San, but a little smaller overall. And if you walk down it, there is a quieter section with cheaper food and drinks. The bars are mostly out on the street, where you sit on plastic chairs and try not to topple your beer bottle on a very unstable table. At night the best activity is people watching – indeed, most of the outdoor seats are actually set up towards the road, so both people sitting at the table can watch the steady flow of people go by.
We say goodbye to Bangkok tomorrow, though we will be back at the end of the month to fly to Burma. Tomorrow we fly south to Krabi, to begin exploring southern Thailand. This wasn’t our original plan, but I’ll explain that in another post.
-Doug / January 8, 2017 @ 11:12pm / Green House Hostel bar